Emily finds a rectangle of shade and space to park in. She turns off the radio and watches the front door of the office across the street and the window of the first floor conference room above it. To pass the time she closes her eyes and listens to the noise washing by—drumrolls of footsteps, sudden beeps of surprise, echoed conversations, a phone ringing out on a car speaker, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ rolling in on a wave. She opens her eyes.
She was a sales manager for 62 days. The numbers speak for themselves, someone said, as they walked her to the street outside the office. She has parked on that street 21 times in the 21 days since she lost her job, looking at the window she used to open to let the noise in or at the door they walked her out. Evan comes out of that door early today. She watches him as he happily begins to cycle through the autumn light towards home. It is the seventh time she has seen him since she lost her job but now is the first time she follows him, turning up the radio and slipping into the afternoon traffic as he cycles away, leaving behind the street where she parks every day and the red-brick Georgian building where she worked for seven years until three weeks ago, when she suddenly didn’t.
Evan told her four things about himself when she hired him at the start of the summer: he said he was friendly; he said he was open; he said he was happy; he said he was honest. By the end of their 62 days working together her two main feelings about him were: when he laughed she wished she could cry; when he cried she wished she could laugh—she did neither. Emily was 28 years old and had not been comfortable around honest people for any of those years and had consistently instead preferred the company of liars.
There were 62 lunchtimes, stuck in the first floor conference room with the window open, where she could have told Evan this and didn’t. Liars play along with my fantasies (she didn’t say, 50 days from the pitches) they leave my delusions unchecked. Liars tell me my skin looks fine when it doesn’t (she never continued, with 43 days to go) they tell me I was good when I wasn’t, they go along with me when they know I’m wrong, they sleep with me when it’s gone too far not to, they have good excuses when they stand me up or stop loving me or leave me for someone better, or for when they didn’t love me in the first place.
Honest people (she didn’t elaborate, 37 days from the pitches) call themselves spiritual and centred and old souls. They talk about their past lives. They detox. They throw out their smartphones and vlog about it. They (like you Evan, she didn’t say, with 33 days to go) take up Tai Chai and mindfulness and joyfulness and gratefulness and positive psychology and ‘The Secret’ and free hugs for strangers and paying it forward and reflexology. They (like you, she didn’t continue, 30 days from the pitches) go on retreats and train in Reiki and promote alternative therapies and take natural non-codeine non-caffeine non-alcohol based remedies for pain and prescribe everyone else the same non-solutions for the innumerable problems of being alive.
Like you, Evan (she didn’t say, 29 days from the pitches) honest people have rich parents and credit cards with large limits for emergencies (this wealth is one of the few things they’re not honest about) and are frequently no-need-for-foundation-beautiful or, like you (she didn’t point out) just-woke-up-handsome. Their skin (she did not say) was unworried by the weight of the truths they didn’t hide in their teens, their faces unwrinkled by the way their stomachs don’t roll up in folds like lava in certain newly popular sex positions, their weight un-fluctuated by the stress they don’t suffer.
Of course, when do they suffer (she didn’t go on, 15 days from the pitches) you can count on hearing about it. As she watched, from the conference room window, fat drops of summer rain landing on the umbrellas and the bus stop and the windscreen wipers below, she didn’t tell Evan that honest people like him have to tell everyone about it when they suffer and they are praised for showing the courage and openness they were certain they would be praised for showing when they showed it. She didn’t say, nine days from the pitches, as he ate salad from a vintage lunchbox (his Granny’s, he said, who he was really close to, aren’t you all, she didn’t say), that she thought the real heroes were the ones who said nothing, the ones who counted up the mistakes and the embarrassments and the failures and the Evans in silence.
She didn’t suggest prizes for people who emigrated without writing a homesick memoir (two things Evan was intent on doing) or for those who faced a break-up without (like Evan did) self-publishing a too personal to read book of poetry, or for those who when faced with minor everyday rudeness (life) don’t as Evan does, blog about it, or for those who died young of fatal diseases without going on television beforehand and irritating everyone else by being happier and calmer sick than they could ever be healthy (not like you, yet, unfortunately, but you would do it, she didn’t say). She didn’t tell him, as he spent the lunchtime five days from the pitches meditating and writing in his Moleskine journal, that at funerals she thought they should read out all the things that actually happened to the person (by hiring, if necessary, a private investigator)—the truths they held in, the lies they told to leave the world unbothered by the clammy facts of their lives. She didn’t tell him, three days from the pitches, that at her funeral they could talk about the two sticky summer months she spent with him in the conference room, sitting by the window or practicing the pitches as he made worried faces, counting the days as they went by, counting down to the failure that would launch her out into the nowhere she’s been driving around in for the last three weeks.
Evan was seven things: he was square-jawed and brown eyed and quirky and grounded and sex positive and gender-neutral and egalitarian. He was a human 2.0. He was an inspirational Tumblr post that came alive and got out of hand and cost her her job. He censored his life like most people censor their Facebook profiles. In her phone late one night she typed the five things he didn’t do: he made no inappropriate maybe ironic maybe not racist jokes; he didn’t not speak to one or sometimes all of his siblings; he never went weeks without ringing home and didn’t delete his mother’s voicemails without listening to them; he hid no secret shame of being used like a toy and enjoying it; he had no fantasies of murdering the people he worked with; he didn’t dream either of operatic sex with them where he screamed out everything he had been holding in.
He did of course keep a journal of his dreams and would sometimes read them to her at the start of the summer, in the single digit first days of their time together, mornings when the conference room was fresh with undisturbed air. He read his dreams to her, for example, on the third day as the early heat rose from below, summoning up a sense of childhood mornings from the dustless carpet and the sprayed clean whiteboard and the moist tables and the fluffed up paper bins. That she sat there encouraging him to read his dreams to her instead of sniffing in the possibility of the eight hours work ahead of them, is, she has calculated, 24% of why she can’t sleep at night—the other 76% is taken up mainly by the fact that she doesn’t have a job to put her to bed early and get her up in time again like a loving parent. Not being able to sleep is just one of the reasons she has spent the last three weeks since she lost her job just driving, to tire herself out, from morning until evening when it’s light but it feels darker and the night comes browny-black up out of the ground like a burnt cake and everyone but her is finishing work and walking, faster than the traffic can move, in the warmth of the rising dusk.
Evan was one thing when she hired him: he was an actor. It was a joke around the office, once everyone saw how good looking he was, that she had just hired him to be her boyfriend or to at least spend one night touching her enough to make up for 108 more nights of not being touched. It was a joke around the office and it was a joke she told too and like all the jokes she tells, it was true, like when she said she’d emigrate but she was worried she wouldn’t have the numbers for a proper leaving party, or when, four days away from the start of the pitches, she joked that she would accuse him of raping her but didn’t think anyone would believe that he’d want to or that she wouldn’t. He was an actor and sales was yet another chance for him to express himself (honest people, she’s noticed, are constantly finding those). She was his manager, he was her one man sales team. They had two months to prepare a pitch and give it at the end of the August to five different companies in five different conference rooms.
Evan had studied improv and wouldn’t practice the pitch until it felt right, so to try and get him to feel right they spent the first 14 mornings doing warm up exercises for actors. They made, more than once, a physical score to music, moving themselves into shapes and poses to match whatever terrible song was playing from his phone. (All honest, happy, open, positive people, she is convinced, listen to terrible music, they have never needed it, they have never lived, as she does now, from one song to the next, switching the radio every few minutes, following somebody they hate home as he cycles through the watery light of the late afternoon, hoping for a song to come on that could make them turn around and go home, hoping for a song to come on and become a theme tune for a future that’s out there waiting somewhere.)
He ruined the beginning of 14 days and ruined 27 practice pitches after that with his “I was just thinking, what if…” suggestions. When she dismissed them, with honesty softened by lies, he would switch from his usual handsome, bland, miniature wedding cake husband face to his crinkled up thinking face and she would lose 25 minutes on average (and over 11 hours altogether) listening to him say again that he just wanted to do the best pitch possible and being reminded what an honest, open, creative person he was. (He warned her about his thinking face on the first day, so, he said, she wouldn’t think it rude when he pulled it. She assured him she wouldn’t, she knew she would, she did. ) When the pitches were three days away the heat of the summer cooked under a low lid of clouds and she spent those final three lunchtimes by the window, eyes closed, listening to the traffic, sweating and hoping it would rain and the clean shock of the wet streets would solve all the problems of the pitch for her.
Seven hours before the first pitch began she realised that the day after they ended would be the first day of the rest of her life, just not in the way Evan and idiots like him would say it. It would instead be the first day of what she was sure she would call The Great Set Back, a time for resettling, for regression towards the mean, for the un-gritting of teeth, for the uncurling of the fists she has kept sharp since she finished college and started working there in sales. And she was right. This morning as the sun, coming in her bedroom window, heated her from the ankles up the way a tongue might, she wrote in her phone that she did everything right—she bet the time she had on the cards she held and the seven years she lost when she lost her job were the best years she had to play with, the early to mid-twenties golden era of good looks (relative to what’s coming next) and youthful explosion out into the world, the years when you either succeed or fail, the years when you first start to notice that the numbers are adding up for you too.
Evan fell apart at the pitches and took that fraction of her life down with him. He spent two months telling her the truth and telling her he was telling her the truth, and on the first day when he stood up he couldn’t speak. It got worse from there. He dripped sweat on the second day, as summer drained from the landscaped gardens outside the window. He stuttered on the third day in the conference room that sparkled with the smell of perfume. He stared at the floor on the fourth day, in a conference room with glass walls so she could see the rest of that office working on in mime all around him. He cried, on purpose, biting his tongue, on the last day. Everyone watching stared at the table as he sat back down, clearly impressed by his own ability to feel. She stood up to take over, as she had done every day for five days, to close the pitch in another (the fifth) conference room that had stopped listening.
Evan had been “well to be honest…” complaining to anyone who would listen about Emily and his complaints were given meaning by the failure of the pitches which were his fault in the first place. She was fired because she hired him, and, since words speak louder than actions, he was promoted into her job after they walked her out into the noisy street and the surprising warmth of what would become an Indian summer.
It has been warm for the three weeks since, though the sky has faded in the 43 minutes she’s been circling his house, driving by the front gate he tied his bike to and up one parallel street and back down another. When he comes out again he has a yoga mat rolled under his arm and a canvas bag hanging from the straight edge of his shoulder. She turns the radio down to a mumble and follows behind him as he walks, back the way they came, towards the office.
She rocks back and forth in the beginnings of the rush-hour traffic, rolling in and out with the green and red lights like a corpse washing up on land. He passes the office without a look up at the window where she used to sit and continues on to wherever he’s going. Five of the people she used to work with come out the door, finishing early to sit in the last of the Indian summer or taking an extended four o’clock break or a late lunch after a meeting ran over. They stand in the shadow of the building, touch each other on the arm, light cigarettes and flirt and bitch probably about whoever wasn’t there with them, walking now again in the yellows and browns of the tumbling sky. She looks for her name on their lips but can’t see it. She adds them to the number of people around her own age who are happier and making more money and being touched more than her.
The traffic washes her forward and she is beside Evan again, then ahead of him, then behind and then so level that she has to stare at the car in front even though she wants to get out and accidentally bump into him and find some way of making him as unhappy as he has made her. It gets darker. Lights here and there come on in the offices and upstairs apartments along the street. The sinking colours of the evening bring her closer to another night, her 22nd, of counting. Later she will count the number of friends she’s lost (11), the number of friends she still has (2), the number of months she is behind on rent (2), the number of days since she’s had sex (191), the number of days since anyone touched her, even by accident (4), the number of years gone (28).
Her car is swept past him again so she pulls a U-turn when she can and drives back towards where he was walking. She drives up and down that street and the streets nearby until she is sure she has lost him and lost with him someone, other than herself, to blame for her failure. It gets colder inside the car and the shops begin warmly closing and the people working in them rub their eyes and watch the traffic and think, she thinks, of bed. Night rises from the black tarmac of the street and the pubs get busy. It starts to rain and the rain in the spray of her headlights brings with it as it falls the sense of a change in the seasons. She keeps driving, past the homeless men and the smokers in doorways and the last of the late night shoppers. She keeps driving even though her life has congealed into a narrative she can’t lie or dream her way out of, even though the numbers have spoken for themselves, even though the years she has left stretch ahead of her in a line of numbers that are the worst numbers of all.